Robben Island, a Singular moving experience

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February 18th 2015
Published: February 18th 2015
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Robben island. A moving experience.

Monday afternoon. 1pm ferry to Robben Island off shore Cape Town.

There were hundreds of passengers who looked like tourists waiting, and a good sprinkling of passengers who looked like Black South Africans. I don't know the accents so I can't tell. There were Japanese, and Germans, Americans, Brits and Italians plus a Trini for good measure.

As we queued to enter the crowded waiting room, to have our bags scanned before boarding the ferry, I noticed the mood was somber befitting the pilgrimage we were about to make. Reminding me of my visits to Ann Frank house in Amsterdam. Even that normally unruly lot- a teenage school group from England- weren't actually behaving in an outrageous manner.

The waiting room walls and stairwell were chock full with several visual representations from the apartheid era.

For those too young to know what that was – it was a period starting in 1948, just after World War II, when the Afrikaaners I.e. Dutch people in South Africa declared virtual war against the black tribes and native communities of the land. Laws were passed over time which took away their rights and freedoms, declared their status to be inferior, corralling them into slum areas called Townships where they lived in abject poverty.

But they were met with resistance against the brutal and unjust laws, segregated living and working, and the oppressive regime. The situation paralleled segregation in the southern USA.

Dozens of Africans were gunned down by the state police when they protested being required to have a Pass book on their person and were imprisoned if they were found in white areas without the passbook. The black struggle attracted global attention and by the Sixties there were worldwide protest demonstrations, marches and fund raising pop concerts to Free the leaders of the resistance. Some famous names included Steve Biko, Thambo, but the most famous of all the fighters was Nelson Mandela.

It was Mandela who took over the leadership reins in 1994 when at last the Afrikaans NP Nationalist Party government under Prime Minister DeKlerk left office and the ANC African National Congress took over the government. Both these men earned the Nobel Peace Prize that year for successfully transitioning the country from brutality to justice, for the ideals of peace and reconciliation.

Mandela and other resistance leaders had been captured and imprisoned for decades. Robben island, an off shore location, was their prison. A rocky and barren place that took our ferry 45 minutes to reach, the island was a secure prison. Visiting it was an onerous task. And visitors to the political prisoners had a hard time getting permission to visit in the first place. There was no easy way to evade one’s jailers and contact people on the outside. The prison chief ruled with a harsh hand. Yet the prisoners were able to get messages out, even Mandela’s Afrikaans cell guard helped him in the end as his autobiography tells us.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is today mostly the story of the struggle against apartheid and particularly the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. Though the island itself was in use for centuries before that.

The tour departs the VA wharves using a motley collection of vessels – I sailed over on a sleek modern white catamaran and returned on an old blue steel vessel of uncertain age.

On arrival at the island we boarded a bus for a drive around to the different sites and structures not just the prison but also the church, school etc. Our guide, a young man whose African name in English means Joy, was excellent. He gave balanced and measured commentary including a lot of information about apartheid, the struggle, township life, and President Mandela. He never failed to refer to him as President Mandela. Showing so much respect and affection, it was very moving.

Driving across the island we appreciated how hard prison life it was, labouring under scorching sun without shelter, the earth bone dry and rocky. Within sight of freedom denied on the mainland. Nothing seems to grow there except giant kelp weed in the salty sea and bony spikey cacti and succulents on land. It is a place of no hope. No water. No greenery. Just blinding white chalky stone. And a penguin or two!

We stopped at the quarry site where the prisoners were put to hack out chunks of stone which they then had to crush to powder … Which affected their lungs later. They took a short food break in the shallow cave that was hewn out of the stone… And they did their toilet in there also. So the guards never entered the cave – making it the perfect place to talk freely to each other about politics and revolt with no fear of eavesdroppers.

After the bus tour we were handed to another guide to take us through the prison buildings. This guide (always an ex convict from the apartheid days) narrated first hand stories of what life in the prison Had been like. We walked through the prison corridors, toilet stalls, visitors cubby holes etc and stopped at Mandela's solitary cell where he spent some 17 years. It contains only the essential supplies given each prisoner …. A blanket, a cup and plate, a bin. Later on the prisoners won the right to a steel frame bed with a hard pillow.

After years of asking for permission to plant a garden it was finally granted to him…. And Mandela used the garden corner to bury his note book where he described prison life. That was forbidden and the notebook would have been seized.

My lasting impressions of this tour were of the two guides and the information they gave us, the hopeless and desolate landscape of Robben Island itself and the interest shown by the persons in my tour group. People listened and paid attention, United in their interest in the main man, Mandela. There was also a gift and souvenir shop. And the wall of information and pictures on the jetty where a steady stream of arrivals and departures met and crossed paths.

It was a very busy tour which lasted four hours all told, but didn't seem so long.

I'm glad I experienced Robben Island.

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19th February 2015

Thanks for sharing this moving part of your journey.felt as though I was there with you.
20th February 2015

That was a most interesting read, Margs.
21st February 2015

Must have been so incredibly moving....
Wow. I'm now catching up with posts I missed. This one is so wonderful, and your account so thorough. Wish one day I can visit too.... xx

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